Mark Wallace's Black Skiff

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Rough Water Rowing

Rough water can happen to any of us: The wind gains strength while we’ve been easily rowing downwind… A sudden thunder storm comes up… A wind shift causes a ‘confused sea’, waves from multiple directions. Regardless of how much we love nice calm rowing conditions, stuff happens… Here are ideas on how to deal with unexpected rough water.

Dale McKinnon, in an article in Small Boats Monthly, Rowing Rough Water , identified three keys for rowing in rough water:

1. Shorten your stroke by a quarter to a half.

 Birgit Skarstein, of the Lidchhardt Rowing Club agrees:

“When the water is very rough, you need shorter, more frequent strokes and steady, smooth power.”
 In another article Rough Water Technique, the author states:
“In extremely rough water, stop your hands about 3 or 4 inches away from your ribcage at the finish of the stroke. This will allow more room to drop your hands [lifting the blades higher to avoid hitting waves] and release the blades from the water.”
 2. Relax.

Dale says: 
“Concentrate on softening your grip… you will calm the rest of your body. Stay balanced and relaxed, and let the boat do its wild hokey-pokey beneath you…”
Shirwin Smith, Founder of Open Water Rowing Center in Sausalito, California, states:

“Don’t fight the water. The biggest problem for scullers on rough water is their tendency to stiffen their upper body, arms and hands. “
3. Zigzag to deal with a ‘beam’ sea.

Dale recommends, rather than rowing parallel to the waves (with first one oar and then the other oar digging in and water possibly pouring over the gunnel), we angle (30 to 45 degrees) into the wind. The boat will not roll so much and it will be easier to keep both oars in the water. Turning into the wind will also offset the distance the boat is being blown down wind.

My personal ‘learnings’ from rowing in rough water:

  • Stop the ‘death grip’ on handles
  • Stop trying to power through wind and waves… Use steady pressure with shorter, more frequent, strokes
  • Stop smashing into the waves with the oars… Make the stroke recovery higher and feather the oars so they either skim over waves or ‘cut’ through them
  • Think “Relax, firm and steady… I can do this.” Repeat.

An excerpt from Dale’s article:

“Halfway across the entrance to McKay Reach [in the 3rd week of an 800 mile row from Ketchikan, Alaska, to Bellingham, Washington in a 20’ Sam Devlin designed dory] I encountered swirling gale-force winds and waves coming at me from all directions. As my fear increased, my grip on the oars grew tighter. I was tiring quickly and my hands, forearms, and back ached. I knew that if I didn’t regain my composure and relax, fatigue would add exponentially to the danger I was in. To reach the safety of even the nearest lee I would have to conserve energy. I kept pulling and calmed myself. I loosened my grip and soon felt my body begin to relax. As my spine became less stiff, my hips could adjust to the wild gyrations of the hull. My head no longer swayed with every wave, and my growing dizziness subsided. My blades stopped getting slapped skyward off the tops of waves, and my tendency to “catch a crab” disappeared. I could feel the water on each blade and adjust more quickly to the waves’ erratic shapes.”
Tell us about your experience rowing in rough waters.
The next blog will focus on various outrigger designs.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Feathering Without Pain

To feather an oar is to spin it forward approximately 90 degrees so that the blade, during recovery, is almost level (keep the leading edge of the blade slightly above horizontal) to the water. Why feather? Two reasons:

  1. Wind resistance is reduced, especially when rowing upwind. When rowing upwind and I don’t feather, I can definitely feel the resistance.
  2. In rough water, sometimes we don’t raise the blade high enough. If the oar is feathered, then the blade will cut through the wave… if not feathered, it’s called “catching a crab”, which not only slows the boat down but can be dangerous if only one oar catches.

In private correspondence with Christopher Cunningham, Editor of Small Boats Monthly, we discussed feathering and why people find it uncomfortable after just a couple of minutes. I mentioned to him that I feather by rolling my fingers, rather than cocking my wrist. He told me that his father, a rowing coach for many years (see for a write-up about his late father) taught his rowing students this technique to feather.

Hand and Wrist During the Pull Portion of the Stroke
This photo shows the hand position during the power portion of the stroke. Notice the blade is almost vertical and the wrist is straight.

Hand and Wrist When Feathering by 'Cocking' the Wrist

Here, the oar has been feathered (blade is horizontal) by cocking the wrist. I found, after a couple of minutes of feathering this way, my wrist starts to feel uncomfortable… soon leading to pain.

Hand and Wrist When Feathering by 'Unrolling' Your Fingers

And here the oar is feathered the same amount, but the wrist is straight. Just ‘unroll’ your fingers and loosen the thumb (exaggerated here). When the oar is all the way forward, raise your hand and ‘reroll’ your fingers at the same time for the ‘catch’. Your hand will look like that in the first photo above.

If you don’t feel the need to feather your oars, you may want to practice feathering in case you are in a situation (high wind, rough water) when it will be essential that you do. Try it and let us know your experience.

The next blog will have tips on rowing in rough water.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

A 15.5' (4.7m) Plywood Oar Cruiser

Few row boats can be used as ‘oar cruisers’ without modification (Wellsford’s Walkabout ( is one exception).
Michalak’s Larsboat ( is a boat that can be made into a very nice oar cruiser.
Line Drawing for Larsboat by Jim Michalak 
Larsboat is Michalak’s very popular “Toto” design lengthened 30” (76cm) to an overall length of 15’ 6” (4.7m) but still 30” (76cm) wide. Jim presents Larsboat as a one- or two-person double-paddle canoe.
Larsboat as a Double-paddle Canoe 
I built an 8:1 scale model and realized that it would make an oar cruiser with some additions, yet minimal changes to the basic design (no changes to the hull). Here is how I would see it.
Model of a Larsboat Converted to an Oar Cruiser
Note the mast lying on the bottom (fitting in the cockpit) and the mast partner on the forward edge of the cockpit. There is also a (pluggable) hole in the rear deck with a mast step on the bottom of the aft compartment. The idea of this is that a diamond shaped sail would be permanently attached to the mast and used as a downwind sail by placing the mast in the forward partner and running the two sheets back to cleats on the outside of the coaming. When anchored, the same sail would have the two clews together, with a sprit boom, sheeted tight and thus prevent the wild yawing that occurs when anchored with any wind.

Comparison of Oar Cruisers: Verio and Larsboat
Comparison of the Larsboat conversion to the Verio conversion found at:(

Specifically, the changes/additions to Larsboat are:
  • Move the bulkheads to provide 6’ 6” (2m) of cockpit for sleeping and to support the end of the two decks
  • Add crowned foredeck 4’ 11” (1.5m) long,
  • …crowned afterdeck 3’ 6” (1.1m) and
  • …side decks 4” (10cm) wide
  • Provide hatch access to the two water-tight compartments either on the decks and/or on the bulkheads
  • Add a reinforced coaming 4” (10cm) high on all four sides of the cockpit
  • Use removable outriggers hooked onto the coamings to provide 4’ (1.2m) oarlock spread
  • Provide framework for the custom ‘tent’. This framework could be
1.    Semi-permanent bows:
Semi-permanent Bows as a Tent Frame

 These would stay mounted all the time (except when car-topping), with the tent in three pieces: The top, which could be partially rolled up to provide shade for the rower, and two sides, which would only be used at night.

2. A single ‘hinged’ bow (or two)…
Hinged Bow(s) as a Tent Frame 
… which has the advantage of folding down inside the coaming. Remove the outriggers as done with all these alternatives, then hook the two sides and two ends over the bow(s) and coaming. One, or both ends would need a flap covered bug netting to enable ventilation and reduce condensation.  

3. A single support held by the mast step and partner… Simple, but storing the strut would be a problem.
Single Strut as a Tent Support

 The Larsboat, as designed, weighs about 60 pounds (27kg). With the modifications above, she would weigh about 80 pounds (36kg).

This oar cruiser would be fast, able to handle most any coast-wise waters and car-topped… a nice combination.

The iPhone alarm buzzed her awake at 4:00 am so she could be rowing by sunup on one of the longest days of the year… opened the insulated canister of oatmeal, nuts and dried fruit she had covered with boiling water the evening before… water was starting to heat for the green tea… ate breakfast along with a banana… retrieved a half-dozen energy bars, an orange, apple and 4 bottles of water from the aft compartment for the day’s fuel she’ll need, and stored all in ‘ready-bags’ hanging under the side decks.
Unhooked the tent, stored it in the forward compartment along with her sleeping pad, light blanket and luxurious feather pillow she always brought… washed out the breakfast canister, cup and spoon… While a fresh cup of water was coming to boil, she added a mix of beans, bacon bits and smidge of cayenne pepper to the canister, added the boiling water and put it aside for tonight’s hot dinner… put away the ‘soda-can’ alcohol stove in the utensil box and stored it in the aft compartment…pulled the anchor in, and after washing off the mud, tied it in chocks mounted on the forward bulkhead…
Untied the oars and set out in perfectly calm, windless waters, easy strokes initially, just as the sun came up. She thought; “Oh my God… thank you… it’s perfect.”

In the next blog, we’ll show a way to feather the oars with much less stress to the wrists.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

What are Common Oar Dimensions?

Here we’ll talk about how various designers dimension their oars.


Koti uses the following table:

Oar Length as a Function Oar Lock Spread

He suggests selecting an oar length between the light blue and red lines if you are strong or rowing in smooth and low wind conditions. If you’re not that strong, or wind/wave conditions are more difficult, then select an oar length between the yellow and black lines. Note that “Beam” is the beam at the oarlocks.

Does this mean you need to have two sets of oars? Not necessarily… you can adjust the effective length of the oar by using ‘gearing’… see the post “Change Gears When Rowing?.

 Oar Designs

Following are a sample of oar designs created by small boat designers…

Jim Michalak

Jim, in both his book (Boat Building for Beginners (and Beyond)) and at (Note: this link does not work... go to, scroll to bottom and click on "THE WAY BACK ISSUES". Click on "1999" >> "January 1st 1999" >> "Rowing 3") diagrams an oar made from a single 8 foot "2 by 6" (1½” by 5½”) (38mm by 140mm):

Jim Michalak Oar from a "Two by Six"

If we placed the pivot point (oarlock position) 3 inches outboard of where the loom changes from square to round, the gear ratio would be 2.5. If this point were to be the center of 6” (152mm) leathers, we could adjust gear from a ‘high’ gear of 3.0 to a ‘low’ gear of 2.1.

Gear = outboard length (tip of blade to oarlock) divided by inboard length (oarlock to end of handle).


R.D. Culler, in his book, Boats, Oars, and Rowing, page 44 gives dimensions for 8’ (2,44m) oars.
R.D. Culler's 8' Oar

And on page 61, he diagrams an 8.5’ (2,6m) spoon-blade oar. If we place the oarlock 3” from the handle end of the 13” leather, then the gear would be 3.5. If we placed the oarlock 6” from the handle end of the leather, gear would be 3.0.

Culler's Design for an 8' 6" Spoon-blade Oar


Phil Bolger
(Small Boats by Phillip C. Bolger, page 30) provides a diagram of a 7’ (2,1m) spoon-blade oar from “Old Town Canoe Company”. According to their site, these are no longer made.

Old Town Canoe Spoon-blade Oar Dimensions

On this oar, placing the lock 3 inches outboard of the button would produce a gear of 2.7, the same as the oar below.

Bolger's Suggested Changes to a Mass Produced Oar

The diagram above shows how Bolger would modify a “mass produced oar” to make it lighter and more efficient.

John DeLapp

John, in the Winter 1990 issue of Ash Breeze (,  published a diagram (below) for how to make a spoon blade oar. I followed his instructions to make the spoon blade oars I currently use on my Ross Lillistone Flint.

However, I found the handles (shaped as he recommends) so uncomfortable to use that I replaced them with ones similar to those that R.D. Culler recommends: 1” diameter at the loom end and 1¼” at the end of the handle. I’ve been using these oars for over 2 years and find them excellent. The description of these oars and how I replaced the handles can be found in a Duckworks article, “New Oars for Raven” available at

Diagram for Making DeLapp Oars

Assume lock is 2.5 inches from button, gear is 2.3


Concept2 (

“Hatchet” (aka “Cleaver”) bladed oars were first designed in 1991 by Dick and Pete Dreissigacker ( The advantages of the hatchet blade are that the blade has more surface area for a given oar length (thus oars can be shorter) and that the amount of shaft in the water is reduced compared to a more traditional blade shape.

Pictured below is a Concept2 Fat2 sculling blade:
Concept2 "Fat2" Blade

Blade length is 18.1" (46cm), width at tip 6.5" (16.5cm) and width at widest point is 9" (23cm). Overall oar length is measured from the end of the handle to the point on the blade at the arrow, an extension of the center line of the shaft.

Recreational rowers are beginning to use hatchet bladed oars because of their higher efficiency.

I was not able to find a pattern, nor building instructions for these oars. If anyone knows of either a pattern and/or instructions, let us know in the Comments below.

In the next blog, we'll introduce you to another rowboat to 'Oar Cruiser' conversion.